Eric Heintz – On Building a Championship XC Program

Soon after this interview, Atlanta Track Club announced the hiring of Eric Heintz as their High Performance Director, where he oversees the youth and adult training programs, as well as the elite and master’s teams. Before beginning with the Club, Eric was Head Cross Country and Track and Field coach at Marist School before resigning from his Head Track and Field position in 2017 to spend additional time with his family (including his wife and 3 young boys) and to finish up a Leadership Certificate from Johns Hopkins University. At Marist, his boys’ and girls’ teams won 24 state championships between cross country and outdoor track in only 13 years. Heintz is also a competitive age-group runner.

The genesis of passion

Coach Eric Heintz grew up in Mentor, Ohio. “It’s pronounced like ‘Menner’, if you’re from there,” he quipped. A self-professed “bad” little league player, he eventually decided to go out for his middle school track team.

He still remembers his first track practice. “It was so classic; there’s always a scary old gym teacher with a clipboard and a whistle and too-short sweatpants. He said, ‘raise your hand if you think you’re fast.’” About half the class did so. 12-year-old Eric was NOT going to raise his hand. “You are sprinters,” the teacher declared. “The rest of you guys are distance runners.”

“No joke, that’s how I became a distance runner.”

Convinced by friends to come out for the cross country team the next fall, Eric was exposed to his first influential coach, Jim Lefler. “He kept us all on the straight and narrow,” Eric explained. The next year, Lefler moved up to an assistant coaching position in the high school. “I had him for 5 straight years, and he was a big influence on me.”

By eleventh grade, Heintz was flirting with making the varsity team. Coach Lefler eventually persuaded him to pursue higher goals, and by his senior year, he was an impact competitor for their team. During this time, he also grew close to Ken Simko, another coach for the team. The pair of coaches complimented each other well, with one excelling at the personal side of coaching and one incredibly knowledgeable about the sport. “Through the two of them, I got the best of both worlds.”

Heintz ran at NCAA D3 John Carroll University in Cleveland, Ohio, where he was coached by the legendary Dick Mann. Although Coach Mann was only in his 2nd year at John Carroll, he had 40-some years of coaching experience at Cleveland Heights High School. “He was a wonderful human who really knew people,” remembers Heintz. Unfortunately, Heintz’ college career was somewhat lackluster; sometimes he felt that he was training foolishly. Coach Mann “coached like it was 1952,” a training system that didn’t work well for Heintz. Nonetheless, Heintz recognized the role that Coach Mann and his other coaches played in his understanding of the sport. They all brought different things to the table. “I kept having all these different experiences with people.”

Eric Heintz smiles with Jenny Simpson, professional runner for New Balance; photo from @maristdistance Instagram

A rocky start: transitioning to coaching

Eric started reading books: a LOT of books. “I don’t know if the kids these days know about this, but I used this thing called interlibrary loan,” Eric joked. The reading didn’t make him a better runner right away, but it did set him up for his first coaching job at a local independent school.

“I learned what not to do from the coach I was working with,” Heintz admitted. As an example, “over the course of that season, he never even learned my name. He often called me by the wrong name, even after I had repeatedly corrected him.” Nevertheless, he spent his time learning and gaining experience.

Soon, he moved to Atlanta to pursue a graduate degree at Emory University. He began teaching and coaching at a public school in Gwinnett County and managed to have some success during his 2-year tenure. He hit his stride at Marist School, however, where he taught History and served as Head XC Coach and either as the Head or an Assistant Track Coach for 13 years.

In 2009, he expanded his repertoire to include private coaching for all age levels. His group is called “High Miles Running”, and it all started with a Tuesday night workout group. “I inherited the idea from my mentor, Roy Benson.” Benson was a longtime high school coach in the Atlanta area, who also served as the Director of Track & Field at the University of Florida in the 1970’s. He also had a stint as the Executive Director of Atlanta Track Club, the organization that Heintz has recently joined.

Through High Miles Running, Heintz has now worked with athletes from ages 12-86. “I’ve seen the runner’s lifecycle, as people are starting to call it.”

For Heintz, the biggest difference between coaching high schoolers and adults is that the adults don’t require outside motivation. “They seek you out because they want to improve. They’re good at following protocols and doing what you expect of them.” Granted, all adults are also wrestling with the complications of life, family, and work.

Communication is the name of the game

Heintz has learned to efficiently deal with the challenge of coaching an incredibly wide breadth of ability and experience.

Marist’s boys XC team; photo from @maristdistance Instagram

“At one point, I might be working with a guy who runs 4:10 in the mile and send him off on his workout, and then turn around and work with a girl who is trying to break 7:00 in the mile. The way you have to approach them on that journey is entirely different.”

Trying to stay relevant and provide leadership and guidance to a high school roster of 130 athletes, all of whom are at a different place in their life and training, can be a real challenge. Of course, there’s going to be athletes that you naturally have a closer relationships with. “Those personal relationships are what will keep you going.”

Creativity is vital. Heintz learned to schedule workouts on different days for different groups of athletes, so that their main coach could always be available during key interval days. He also “deputizes” upperclassman and team captains to keep things running smoothly.

“You have to trust kids until they break that trust,” Heintz advized. “I give them a fair amount of autonomy. If you treat kids as young adults, they are more likely to act as a young adult and rise to that expectation.”

Heintz is always looking for efficiencies to save time and be more productive. Although they had a brief team meeting before practice each day, he learned that practice time can be maximized by not using that time to deal with logistical intricacies, like when the bus will be leaving for upcoming meets. His favorite method is to communicate at the front end, by sending out one big email to parents and athletes at the beginning of each week.

“I have an open door policy at school,” he shared. This is an advantage to teaching where you coach. “I can grab kids in the hallway.”

Assistant coaches: your most important assets

“Communication is incredibly important, because those are the moments where relationships are built.” Despite all the mass communication, like GroupMe, that is now available, “you still have to find a way to talk to the students one-on-one as much as possible.”

His assistant coaches play this role during practice. They make sure to talk to the kids about things outside of running. “It helps the kids feel loved and noticed. They are much more likely to buy into the program when they know there are adults that care about them.”

“You have to have a wonderful staff, and mine is exceptional,” Heintz glowed. Last year, his varsity assistants were Kevin Lisle and Megan Hunter, both of whom have experience as runners themselves. “The two of them make my job a heck of a lot easier.”

Eric Heintz, Kevin Lisle, and Megan Hunter; Photo from @maristdistance Instagram

He also has a staff of coaches who work with some of the less committed athletes – the ones who show up in August and then stop running again after October. “We still want to give them the attention they deserve.”

The thing he finds most rewarding about coaching is when his former athletes let him know that they are getting into coaching. He recounted a recent story of a JV runner who never made varsity, despite 2 years of concerted effort. This spring, she sent him an email, letting him know that she is moving back to the Atlanta area and wondered if she could help out with the JV team this fall.

“Here’s a young lady who, in many cases, would have been an afterthought. But she wanted to give back because the program and the coaches made such an impact on her… I’m blown away by that kind of commitment and love for the spot. That, for me, has been the greatest story of our success.”

Needless to say, she’ll be coaching at Marist this fall.

Advice for young coaches

Oftentimes, new coaches are in their early 20’s, and they have probably experienced athletic success. “A lot of people think, ‘if it worked for me, it’s going to work for you’, but that’s just not true.” Eric personally believes that the best coaches tend to be athletes who never quite made it to the highest level. “Maybe you were an NCAA qualifier, but not an NCAA champion.”

Whether you were an athlete or not, and regardless of how old you are or how long you’ve been in the sport, it’s imperative to remember this: “there’s a heck of a lot you don’t know.”

He recommends seeking out educational opportunities through USTFCCCA or USATF Coaching Education. Read books with varying perspectives. Ask questions of the people around you. “If you see someone with success, talk to them about what they do that’s a little different.” Talk about failure and things that they have tried. Sign up for mentor programs, even if you’re a mid-career coach who is looking to get better.

Educate yourself in the science, but don’t get lost in it. “You’re coaching people, not energy systems.”

The world is at your fingertips with the resources available on internet. “You don’t have to rely on interlibrary loan like I used to,” Heintz circled back. It might be old-school, but he also gives his assistant coaches a new book every year at the end of the season, based on where they are in their coaching journeys.

Marist’s girls XC team; photo from @maristdistance Instagram

Creating a core philosophy

Most importantly, never stop trying new things. “I have a philosophy on training that we never drift away from, but I always change some of the stuff around the edges to see whether we might be able to gain just that little extra edge.” Often, these experiments fail and they are dropped, but “it’s my recognition that there are other things out there that I don’t know yet.”

Of course, it’s important to have a training philosophy: a “core that you can refer back to when making a training or coaching decision.”

Winning is important in the sport, and Heintz’ teams do a lot of winning. But it’s important to balance the social component for the athletes as well. “It has to be a wonderful experience. The goals of a coach should really be to create lifelong runners who love the sport, want to be fit, and who make good friends and good memories.”

“I want to help kids grow up and become good people,” not just be concerned about the victory at the end. Being able to see them improve their personal records is a rewarding bonus.

He also reminds coaches never to give up on self-care. “You can’t take care of your team unless you take care of yourself as well: and sometimes that means saying no.”

At 38 years old, he still loves participating in the sport. “It’s become part of my lifestyle, and a part of the fabric of who I am.” He’s not proud of any specific PR, per se, as those tend to be relative. “I’m 25 years into this running experience, and I’m most proud of that longevity! There’s something to be said about being an athlete into middle age.”

Photo from @maristdistance Instagram

Take some time to look through Eric Heinz’ exceptional recommended reading list. Plus, stay tuned for a post featuring his unique perspective on the challenges of switching coaching “levels”, including from the high school level to the NCAA.